August Reading in Review

It is amazing how much reading I can get done when there are no movies or live theatre to go to and no restaurants for safe dining out with friends or really anywhere much to go. It was even too hot for most of August to go out for walks, which I did almost daily in the spring.

I’ve started doing some text-banking for the Biden campaign, which feels good to do. But mostly I’ve filled my days with working, reading, crocheting, cooking, and watching TV/movies (mostly TV because movies are harder to focus on). I’ve watched almost all of the Project Runway that’s available on Hulu and all three seasons of Dark on Netflix (which is a totally bonkers show that became impossible to follow by the end). And I’ve just started The Good Wife, which is proving to be an ideal show for right now. It has a nice mix of continuing drama and single-episode plot that is fitting my mood and level of concentration right now.

As for reading, this month was pretty mixed. Some sub-par books by authors I normally love, a few books that were basically ok, a few that I liked a lot, and one that absolutely knocked my socks off.

  • The Lost Traveller and The Sugar House by Antonia White. These two books are semi-sequels to Frost in May, which I read several years ago. I say semi-sequel because Clara Batchelor, the main character, has essentially the same background as Nanda and the books are usually treated as part of a quartet. The Lost Traveller has Clara trying to figure out what direction her life should take, which is a serious struggle given her parents’ competing visions. Toward the end, she faces a sudden and shocking tragedy that leads her to make a decision that she might never have otherwise, and it’s painful to watch her grapple with the consequences of her actions. The Sugar House finds Clara with an acting troupe, until she decides to get married, but neither she nor her husband are really ready for what marriage and independence mean. The two novels together show a sensitive young woman trying to take steps toward maturity but finding disappointment at almost every turn. White has Clara making big mistakes while, at the same time, showing great growth. She captures so much of what young adulthood is like, although Clara’s specific challenges are not really the norm.
  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book about a geeky teenage boy with girl troubles (that he no doubt blames the girls for) written by someone accused of sexual harassment. It just seemed like a formula for awfulness. But I did want to read all of the Tournament of Books winners before the Tournament of Champions this October, so I decided to at least try and get ready to abandon it if it was seriously annoying. I did enjoy Yunior as a narrator — having someone slightly on the outside tell the story of Oscar and his family kept it from feeling self-indulgent. I also liked the way Oscar’s geeky interests were woven into the story — they’re not just mentioned as a way to make Oscar seem like a person (ooh, he reads Tolkein and like the X Men), they’re treated as ways of seeing the world, as cultural touchstones that can illuminate what’s happening in real life. There was perhaps a little too much story here, and I never came to love it, but I’m not sorry to have read it.
  • The Lifted Veil by George Eliot. A supernatural novella that did not stick with me in the slightest. A man realizes he may be having psychic visions involving the woman his brother intends to marry, and it completely freaks him out. I’ve loved everything I read by Eliot, but this was an unusual kind of story for her, and maybe that’s just as well. It might have worked better as a short story, where it could pack a punch and be done, or a novel, where it could really dig deep into the characters’ psyches. But it was neither punchy enough or deep enough to make an impression on me.
  • Eventide by Kent Haruf. This was by far my favorite of the month. I already wrote a full review singing its praises, so I’ll just say here that Haruf’s writing is both spare and glorious, and the depictions of his characters so suffused with grace that I could spend hours upon hours in his world and with his people.
  • A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Jivan, a young Indian Muslim woman, is accused of being involved in a terrorist attack because of a few comments she made on Facebook. The are people who can testify on her behalf, but they’re caught up in their own personal dramas. Her former gym teacher, PT Sir, is climbing the political ladder. And Lovely, a transgender woman Jivan was tutoring, is trying to become an actress. The short chapters alternating among the three main characters kept me from ever getting fully immersed in this story because I kept having to reorient myself, but the ending did get to me.
  • To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King. The second Kate Martinelli novel finds Kate investigating the murder of an unidentified homeless man. As part of the investigation, she meets Brother Erasmus, a “holy fool” who spends time among both the homeless and the Berkeley’s theology students and may know something about the murder. From that point, the book becomes less about the murder investigation and more about figuring out Brother Erasmus, who speaks only in quotations. This is a fun one, and I’m glad I finally got around to the Martinelli series.
  • Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall. A teenage girl named Sara and a group of friends go searching for Sara’s missing sister down a haunted pathway where so so so many weird things happen. There are monsters and ghosts and general creepiness, but the scary stuff in this book is how the path messes with the characters’ minds. It was a little too long and the character relationships felt too convoluted, and although I mostly liked this, I was really ready to be done by the time the end came.
  • Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer. I’ve only read a few Georgette Heyer novels, but they’ve all been nice pick-me-ups. This was perfectly fine, but, in the end, not a favorite. I loved the premise — a wealthy man (the Viscount Ashley Desford) offers to help a poor young woman whose family is treating her badly, and it turns out to be more complicated than he expected. It started out very well, but so much of the book mostly just involves Desford going from one place to another, looking for someone to help but never quite succeeding. The lead characters are not very interesting, and the romantic leads get so little actual time together that we never get to enjoy their chemistry. In fact, the romance seems almost thrown in. I knew, though, that this was not considered one of Heyer’s best, so it wasn’t a huge disappointment.

For September, I’ve just finished The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, and I’m getting ready to start the final Clara Batchelor book, Beyond the Glass. I also have Dexter Palmer’s first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, out from the library. And I’m very excited about Susanna Clarke’s new book, Piranesi, and Marilynne Robinson’s new Gilead novel, Jack.

I’d love to hear about your reading. Anything you’re excited about? What did you love or hate in August? Or have you read any of my August books?

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 10 Comments

Eventide

Back in February, I read Plainsong by Kent Haruf and loved it. I had every intention to get to the next book in the series within a month or two but, alas, the pandemic intervened and I’m only just now getting to Eventide. It’s every bit as good. Like Plainsong, this book tells stories of the people of the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado.

Most of the characters in this book are new to the story, although the McPherson brothers and Victoria Roubideaux return. For me, they function as the emotional core of the story, so I was glad to see them back. And the long evolution of their lives makes it helpful to read Plainsong before Eventide, even if they are among the only characters to appear in both books. Along with the brothers and Victoria are Luther and Betty Wallace, a couple getting by on food stamps but struggling with illness and how to take care of their kids. There’s also young DJ Kephart, who lives with his elderly grandfather and befriends Dena and Emma Wells, who live nearby. And there are plenty of supporting characters, like teacher Tim Guthrie, a central character from Plainsong, and Rose Tyler, the social worker whose life ends up connecting with multiple stories.

This is the third book by Haruf that I’ve read, and I find his work immensely comforting, even if horrible things happen in the books. This book is not lacking in tragedy at all. There’s a sudden and violent death and a shocking incident of child abuse with long-term devastating consequences (consequences that are both unjust and seemingly unavoidable). Yet I felt comforted by it in the end. Part of it, I think, is that it shows people persevering, just continuing to go on in spite of tragedy. Sometimes tragedy even opens new doors, although that fact is never presented in a sentimental way or in a way that feels meant to erase the pain. I think, too, that Haruf shows great tenderness toward his characters. I can think of only one who seems open to scorn and that’s because he intentionally inflicts pain.

The depiction of Luther and Betty is an example of Haruf’s tenderness toward his characters. They are struggling and not always doing a good job of managing in their struggles. Their poverty is not depicted in some romantic way, in which you get the sense that their children would have perfect meals and everything would get done beautifully if they only had more money. They genuinely don’t seem to know what to do a lot of the time, as becomes evident when we see them discussing how to apply what they’re learning in a parenting class they’ve been required to take. And they have some undefined health issues that make it hard for them to do more than the bare minimum, if that — yet it’s never quite clear if the health problems are to some extent an excuse or if the continued difficulty managing them is really a sign that the system isn’t providing adequate health care (or a little bit of both). Yet, in all of this, in the narrative they are treated with dignity. Some other characters condemn them, but Haruf simply shows us what they do and say and lets us as readers feel how we feel. My own heart broke for them because, especially in the scene after the parenting class, I could see that they were trying but were simply at a loss.

I also must say a few words about Haruf’s prose. It’s extremely crisp. He uses short, but descriptive sentences to tell us what the characters do and say. We don’t get a lot of their thoughts unless they are actually deliberately thinking those thoughts, yet we generally know what the characters are thinking. It’s remarkable how much Haruf packs into his sentences. Here’s a sample, from early in the novel, after the McPheron brothers have dropped off Victoria and her daughter Katie (who have been living with them) in Fort Collins, where Victoria is beginning college:

Then they drove home in the pickup. Heading east away from the mountains and the city, out onto the silent high plains spread out flat and dark under the bright myriad indifferent stars. It was late when they pulled into the drive and stopped in front of the house. They had scarcely spoken in two hours. The yardlight on the pole beside the garage had come on in their silence, casting dark purple shadows past the garage and the outbuildings and past the three stunted elm trees standing inside the hogfencing that surrounded the gray clapboard house.
In the kitchen Raymond poured milk into a pan on the stove and heated it and got down a box of crackers from the cupboaard. They sat at the table under the overhead light and drank down the warm milk without a word. It was silent in the house. There was not even the sound of wind outside for them to hear.

It just cast a spell on me. The descriptions of food are especially note-worthy throughout the books, even though, as in this example, it’s often very simple food. The way Haruf writes about it is often so revealing of character.

I loved this book and hope to read Benediction by the end of the year. If you haven’t read Haruf, I encourage you to give his books a try. I started with Our Souls at Night and do recommend that or Plainsong as a great place to begin.

Posted in Fiction | 5 Comments

July Reading (a week into August)

Happily, I was able to do much more reading in July than I did in June! A lot of it was an exploratory sort of reading — will I enjoy this? What about this? — and some of it was just for the pleasure of reading something I knew for sure I would like. Here it is:

These are the books I read in a more exploratory spirit. I’ve already talked about The Changeling, and I’m going to write about Beyond Black separately, because it was a stunner, so I’ll write about the rest of these briefly.

I feel like I must have been the last person on earth to read Madeline Miller’s Circe. Everyone I know here has read it (partly because it was the book for our public library’s Spokane Reads last year, but still.) But even late to the game, I liked it quite well. I was a big mythology buff as a kid, and it was so enjoyable to see this one retold from a different point of view. I especially liked the bits where Circe invents witchcraft, and the bits about the deep-sea creature who provides the poison for the spear. (Don’t mess with what’s in the deep sea! It’s my personal motto!)

I had kind of given up on seeing much more writing from John Crowley, who is one of my all-time favorite authors, and so I was entirely delighted to see & Go Like This, a book of his short stories. Reading them was such a satisfying experience; I loved them. My favorite of them was a novella called “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines,” which is a love story and a story about invisibility and disability and connection and disconnection and what endures and why.

The third volume of the graphic novel of American Gods was… a bit more-of-the-samey. Perhaps I should have re-read the first two volumes, to get the momentum back? I really like the novel, and I liked this as well, but reading it on its own lacked some of the oomph of my memory of the end of the book. The art is eerie and terrific, though.

The only nonfiction I read this month was Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving, which I read for my book club. Despite the fact that Tutu is an Anglican archbishop, this book is written for a broad audience — for people of any religious background or none. Of course he references his own faith at times, but his premise is that forgiveness is necessary for society, for healthy relationships, and for our own mental flourishing. Taking examples from the very personal to the national and international, Tutu shows both the necessity and the way forward to forgiving and being forgiven, even in situations where forgiveness might seem impossible. I started reading this quite skeptically, but I think this is a very good and relevant book.

These are the books I read, knowing they would be enjoyable and relaxing!

Despite being a Constant Reader as a child, there are many authors and series I never even touched. Noel Streatfeild is one of those. So I finally tried Ballet Shoes (as her most famous) and The Bell Family (for good measure) to see what it was like! What a pleasure. The realistic details about the theater and dancing, the bits about ego and vocation and family, the way the genteel poor scrape and make do, and a sort of feminism (in the sense that the girls should be able to support themselves and want to make a name for themselves in the history books) — it was all so much fun. I’ll add that I watched a superb adaptation of Ballet Shoes, with Emma Watson in it, and that was just as much fun as the books.

It took me a long time to take Other Jenny’s recommendation and read Hilary McKay’s Wishing for Tomorrow, which is (if you will believe it) a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Never would I ever have thought that another author’s sequel to a classic that I’ve read one meelion times would be so wonderful, except if Other Jenny had recommended it. This sequel has Ermengarde as a main character, but also helps us understand the inner lives of Lavinia, Lottie, Jessie, and even the dreadful Miss Minchin. It was partly a perfect homage to the original, and partly a perfect work of its own.

I tried Miss Read’s Village School because I was listening to the Backlisted podcast (this is the only podcast I listen to; does anyone else listen to it? It’s fab) and they mentioned her and I realized I had heard of her many times and never read any of her many, many, many books. This is the first of her Fairacre series, and she has another series about Thrush Green. Both series, I think, are about a certain view of English country life. This book was about as… er… peaceful as you can get: school opens, schoolmistress is replaced, there’s a harvest fair, someone has a baby, Christmas happens, spring happens, we play cricket, there’s a parish fete, summer happens, school’s out, someone gets married, the end. If this is the sort of thing you like, you’re going to like this very much. I liked it… okay? I guess? I was bored nearly to sleep, but it was fine. I did notice that it was extremely classist, in the sense that the schoolmistress and the vicar and a couple of other people are “we” and most of the people who go to the village school are “they” even if they are trying hard to make some money and have extra things (including a good education) for their children. There’s also some racism in the form of some “gypsy” children, who I suppose are extra “they.” This was not very pleasant to read even over the course of about 200 pages, but if you can ignore it, I’m sure it’s very much “how we used to be” and all that. I see that often enough where I live to recognize it.

I have been reading Laurie King’s Russell-Holmes mysteries since 1996, and all these years later, Riviera Gold did not disappoint! This sixteenth (!) installment in the series, about a mystery in Monaco, showed how well this sort of thing can be done: it filled new readers in on the situation without copy-pasting phrases or paragraphs from other books; it settled into a comfortable partnership without feeling boring or worn-out; it used an interesting setting and even real historical people without making them the central focus of the mystery; it used intelligence and danger and wit and cups of tea and balanced them all like spinning plates. I love this series. If you’ve never read them, start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and see if it’s for you.

As for August, I’m nearing the end of Moby Dick, so that’s going to be a whopper! Watch this space! Let me know what you’ve been up to, as well!

 

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July in Review

July brought a few baby steps toward normalcy. I started using my library’s no-contact curbside service, which works really well. And my church started having outdoor services last week, with masks, social distancing, and reservations required. (The reservations are to ensure there’s space for distancing in our small amphitheater.) I’ve continued crocheting and finished a shawl in Tunisian crochet and couple of beaded jewelry pieces and a few afghan squares. I’m currently pondering what to do with the leftover yarn I used for the shawl. I really liked the shawl, except I wish it were bigger, so I may make another with a larger hook, or I may look for a new pattern. So far, I’ve just followed patterns in the various subscription boxes I receive, and I get overwhelmed if I look for one to try on my own. If anyone has recommendations for a relatively easy project that requires a couple of skeins of sportweight yarn, I’m happy to receive them. As for reading, I did a lot of it in July, most of it quite good! A mix of old and new, popular and obscure, fiction and nonfiction. The way I like my reading to be.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara: This true-crime book about the Golden State Killer was pretty gripping, although the large number of victims and locations was hard to keep track of. For me, the really interesting thing about the book was the process of writing it. Michelle McNamara was a true crime blogger who started looking into the cases and gained the respect of a lot of the investigators. Tragically, she died before finishing the book and before the killer was found. As a result, sections of the book are built from her notes and published articles.

Network Effect by Martha Wells: The first full-length novel in the extremely enjoyable Murderbot series includes the return of ART, my favorite character in the series. Murderbot continues its growth as a character, learning to balance competing priorities and loyalties and follow its instincts. One minor issue I have with these books is that the plot can be hard to follow, because Wells just plunks readers into the action. It took me a while to find my footing here — longer than in the novellas — but once I did, I had a great time. I think, though, I might have enjoyed it a hair more as a novella.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: My church has been having weekly discussions on race and policing in America, using this book as a guide. Alexander provides lots of information on how the war on drugs has disproportionately affected Black people, even as white people are no less guilty of illegal drug use. It’s 10 years old, but the landscape hasn’t changed much, as best I can tell. I’m glad, though, that more people are talking about it.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Stella and Desiree are light-skinned Black twins, one of whom chooses to live as a white woman. As in her previous novel, The Mothers, Bennett shows a lot of sympathy for her characters’ choices, even when they’re clearly wrong. She follows the characters across decades and shows the effects of their choices in the next generation. I did have some minor reservations about the inclusion of a trans man in book. On the one hand, it was great to see a trans man just accepted for who he is, and the love story he’s part of is really sweet. But I worry about the potential for placing his transition in parallel with racial passing. It’s not something remarked on in the book, but I wondered about it. I’m curious about how trans readers are reacting to book but have not yet found anything.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: I obviously know how to read a book, but this book is really about how to extract as much understanding as possible from informational texts. Some of the advice seemed counter-intuitive — such as to keep reading and not look everything that you don’t understand. But I don’t think this kind of reading, which involves skimming, outlining, and reading again more carefully, is appropriate for every book and every reader. The authors acknowledge that such reading isn’t necessary or useful for every book. But they also suggest that, for good nonfiction, this is the right and most virtuous way to read. It might be the way to get the most out of a book, but I think it’s also okay just to get what you feel like getting from a book in the moment.

The Soloist by Mark Salzman: Renee was a cello prodigy who, as an adult, lost the ability to play well. He lives alone and teaches but has no clear direction now that he’s lost his talent. Participating in a jury in a murder trial and teaching another young prodigy gradually gives him a new perspective. I found the ending of this book, which shows a new way of thinking about limitations and possibilities, to be quite moving (and it involves a cat, which is a bonus).

The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: In this 1947 novel, a suburban wife named Lucia whose husband has gone to the war finds herself covering up a murder for the sake of her family. And the cover-up brings her into contact with a variety shady characters, doing things no one would suspect her of doing, but also putting her under scrutiny for a whole other set of reasons. It’s a great book, and I liked watching Lucia use the inner resources nobody saw in her, and I worried about how it would turn out for her as her situation gets increasingly desperate.

The Witch Elm by Tana French: Alas, I’m now caught up on Tana French. Her books are so reliably good! This, her first standalone book, features a dead body in a tree and a main character whose memory is messed up, thanks to a head injury incurred during a break-in. So you have a character trying to solve a murder that he himself may have committed. It’s long but I was able to whip through it. I still think Broken Harbour is my favorite Tana French, but this was really good.

Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile: A disturbing novel about a teenage girl named Susanna who seduces the father who abandoned her as a baby. Also extremely sad, because Susanna seems to know no good way to experience love, in part because her family never gave it to her. And when people do offer her appropriate love and friendship, she’s unable to accept. The last part of the novel shifts in tone, as Susanna faces the consequences of what she’s done. Weirdly, I found this last part harder to read than the disturbing main story, I think because there was no more tension to resolve. It was just pain at that point.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison: Set in the 1680s, this book features the voices of a variety of members of a small farming household, servants and landowners. As is typical of Morrison, she treats all her characters with great dignity, even when the society they’re part of does not. Most of the characters are women, and even the woman with the most power doesn’t have any good choices. The book itself feels like an act of mercy, giving voices to women whom history silenced.


As for August, I’m going to continue a mix of old and new books from my shelves and the library. I’ve started The Lost Traveller by Antonia White, sequel to Frost in May, which I read and loved years ago. I have all of books in that series and will probably read them all. I’ll also probably read A Burning by Megha Majumdar for my local bookstore’s book group. And I have one book left from the Tournament of Books Tournament of Champions, coming this fall: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s not a book I’d necessarily be inclined to read if it weren’t for the competition, but I also don’t expect it to be a slog. If it is, I’ll move on to something else!

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

The Changeling

changelingI’ve been interested in stories about changelings for a long time. I can’t quite trace the source of the interest — perhaps part of my more general interest in stories about interactions between fairies and humans, and that goes back to obsessive re-reading of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, so that might sort it. But anyway, as a result, I’ve read two or three books about changelings, from different perspectives, with different outcomes, and enjoyed them more or less. The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle, is absolutely the best of the lot.

Apollo Kagwa is a rare book dealer and a new dad (actually a New Dad, as he frames himself, one of the Good Ones, who is determined to do his share of loving as his own father didn’t) in New York. He’s in love with his wife Emma and his baby son Brian, named after that disappeared father who haunts Apollo’s dreams. But when Emma commits an act of unspeakable violence and disappears, Apollo is left with the shreds of his unravelled life. In order to find himself again, or her, or his child, he must follow strange hints and clues through forests and rivers and labyrinths and caves that are all, somehow, in the boroughs of New York.

So I say that. And that’s the basic plot. But there is so much to this book. For one thing, the warmth and the complications of race infuse it in a way that makes it exciting and interesting to read.  Throughout, it’s a story of black people loving each other, cooking, caring, talking, planning, listening, watching out for each other. Logistically, it presents practical problems: how do you hunt a changeling in one of the magical places of New York, if the neighborhood watch is likely to report you for walking the sidewalk? Structurally, it’s a story of greed and exploitation that makes more sense the deeper you go.

For another thing, it gives such a sense of history. The notion of the changeling itself is an old one — the folklore goes back a long way in different cultures — and Lavalle plays on many different myths and stories, incorporating new ones like Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There (and even To Kill a Mockingbird, in a sinister twist.) It makes for a rich background for this new take.

I wanted more of Emma’s perspective, more of her voice. I would read a sequel that was just her retelling of all of this. But that feels like a quibble in a book I enjoyed so thoroughly. I am really looking forward to reading more of Lavalle’s work. If you know where I should start, I’ll take recommendations.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

June Reading (a week into July)

I don’t seem to have read very much in June, not nearly enough. I did finish the Wolf Hall trilogy, which I’m going to write about separately, and that did mean that overall I read nearly two thousand pages about the Tudors, but somehow that doesn’t seem to account for all my time. Like Teresa, I have also been watching The Americans (it’s excellent and very complex and pretty unpredictable, and I recommend it if you don’t mind a reasonably dark show in These Times, but I will say as my one criticism that it has almost no humor whatsoever.)  Like Teresa, I have also taken up a new hobby (mine is knitting rather than crochet, and I am a very slow, very novice knitter. But I am having fun with it. I’m almost done with a fairly large blanket that I started literally years ago, and I’m about halfway through with a scarf. Nothing fancy. But it’s nice to be doing something with my hands. And I like pursuits that make me feel connected to other people down the years, like bread-baking and putting babies to sleep and making jam and bird-watching and things like that.

In any case. Here’s what I did read, besides the Mantel: one of my friends and colleagues in the English department asked me to read a novel he’s written and give him feedback, and I did. I can’t tell you about it because it’s not published yet, but it’s almost there. I will say that it was very good, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and not just because I know the author, and I hope it gets published and is a hit, and if that happens I will cheerfully tell you all about it here and nag you to read it.

Then I read Ways of Going Home, by Alejandro Zambra. This is translated from the Spanish — Zambra is a Chilean author — and the translation is terrific. It’s a layered story that starts out about a child in an earthquake in Santiago, and the consequences of that night among his neighbors and family members. Then the second part is about the author of the story about the earthquake, and his girlfriend. Then the third part is about the author of the second part, and his musings on his memories. The whole thing is so cleverly done, about memory and forgetting and nostalgia, about the city of Santiago itself, about who has the right to remember certain things and whose memories are allowed to dominate in a culture that has a dictatorship in its near past. It has a light touch in its style, but its themes are vital, and even though it’s a short novel — less than 200 pages — it sticks with you long after you close it.

Finally, I read Mink River, by Brian Doyle. I read this for my book group, and I never would have read it if it weren’t for the group (one good reason to be in a book group!) The book is about a smallish coastal town in Oregon, and a fairly large cast of its inhabitants, including its birds and animals and the Mink River itself, which runs through the town to the sea. The people are mostly scraping by; there’s a doctor and a sculptor and a teacher and a logger and a couple of old guys who work for the Public Works Administration, some kids, a cop, a bartender, some deep-sea fishers, a nun, a talking crow, and so on. The book runs, like a river, from one consciousness to another, letting us see through each person’s eyes, letting us dwell in their hopes and worries and banal thoughts about what’s for dinner and criminal desires and small joys. The events of a small town take place: birth, death, injury, hiking, picnics, adultery, loss of a job, inheritance, depression, sight of a moose.

When I first started this book, I did not think I was going to like it much. Its style is, shall we say, unusual. I thought it was going to be much too twee for me, way over the line into purple prose. But about twenty pages in, I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears… and I decided to go ahead and stop fighting the style and give it a chance. I wound up really loving it, and all its strange wondering insight into human hearts. It’s not a long book, and that’s probably for the best, but for something that never, ever would have crossed my path if not for my book group, I am so glad I read it.

And that’s all for June! I will hope to have more to show for myself in July!

 

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June in Review

Now that I’m into the third month of the pandemic, my new at-home life just feels like normal life. Virginia is opening up a bit more, but I expect to be working at home indefinitely, and it will be a while yet before churches and theatres are open, so I don’t expect to be getting out much more in the near future. Trips to the grocery store and farmers’ market, monthly-ish shifts at my church’s food pantry, and daily-ish walks in the neighborhood are my main activities away from home.

I’m enough of a homebody that stay-at-home life has felt manageable, and I’m extremely fortunate not to have to deal with health stress or worries about job loss at this moment. I’ve been surprised that my use of social media has actually gone down with my increased solitude, and I’ve been pondering why that is. I don’t know if it’s just the (entirely understandably) highly emotional tenor of the conversation that’s putting me off or if having it serve as a primary vehicle for human contact has made it feel less useful than before. Personal messages, usually through text, just feel so much more real and vibrant. Anyway, it may well be just a phase, as my mood around social media tends to ebb and flow.

As for reading, this month was sort of on the slow side. I just finished rewatching The Americans, and I found myself much more eager to watch that than to read this month. Have you watched it? It’s so good! And totally stands up to repeated viewings. It is intense and violent, but the characters’ emotional journeys are so complex and interesting, and it took turns it didn’t even occur to be to expect. The 80s details are spot-on, and the final episode is one of the very best series finales I’ve ever seen.

Crochet bag

I’ve also taken up a pandemic project, learning to crochet. I’ve wanted to learn for years, partly to give myself something to do while watching TV and movies, so I don’t snack, scroll Twitter on my phone, or fall asleep. I ended up subscribing to a few crochet subscriptions, so I don’t have to get out to yarn stores or deal with the pressure of deciding what to make. As I get better and more aware of what I like to make, I’ll strike out on my own. My first completed project was a one-handled bag via Happy Hook Crocheting. I also am working on an afghan through Annie’s Afghan Block of the Month Club and will be starting a shawl today via KnitCrate. (Yes, I went a little overboard, but I want to have enough to do. My next worry will be what to do with all the things I make.)

Natasha on top of the kitchen cabinets

I’ve also been celebrating my cat Natasha’s being cured of FIP (feline infectious peritonitis)! Until recently, FIP had no cure, and a diagnosis usually meant having to decide how much supportive care to get and when to euthanize. And, even now, the process of getting the cure is, well, tricky. The Atlantic had a great article about it and how the cure of FIP is linked to a COVID-19 treatment. It’s pretty wild. I was lucky that Nat’s treatment went smoothly. I was able to get it in pill form, and when the pills were coated in a little bacon-flavored pill paste and a dab of Churu, she thought they were treats and gobbled them down. At the end of May, she had her 90-day post-treatment blood work, and everything looks great! She’s just two years old (FIP tends to attack young cats), so I hope we will have many more years together.

But even with all of that going on, I did manage to read a bit, most of it pretty ok. Here’s what I read:

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This book rocketed to the top of the best-seller list as people have sought to become more educated about racism in the U.S. I already had a copy, so I decided that now was the time to read it. It was … ok. I think it had value for white readers who already believe that racism is a problem but who haven’t spent a lot of time in anti-racist literature. But I’ve read lots of books and articles, listened to lots of podcasts, and watched lots of films about the subject, so not much here was new to me. I picked up a few helpful ideas, but I wouldn’t say that this is the book every white person must read. And, honestly, I think something like White Rage by Carol Anderson or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are more useful as beginning texts because they really look at the big picture. DiAngelo’s focus on white people’s reaction to diversity education in the corporate sector felt a little limited.

The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell. This book is about an Irish woman and her missionary husband who go to Bahrain to with their young daughter and the teenage girl who becomes wrapped up in their lives. It’s a pretty gripping book in that the characters’ emotions are huge, and I was interested to see how it would all wrap up. I didn’t really buy one of the key relationships, and the ending felt really swift, but I really liked some of the introspection toward the end as the characters reflect on what happened.

Riviera Gold by Laurie R. King. The Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries are consistently enjoyable, and this one was no exception. Set in Monte Carlo in 1925, this one involves Mary’s efforts to find her and Holmes’ former housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Of course, a murder intervenes, and Mary and Sherlock must investigate to keep their old friend out of trouble. It was such fun and my favorite book of the month.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub. This was the selection for the Old Town Books subscription service and book club, and it is a nice book about nice people who are doing their best even though they don’t understand each other. It centers on a family comprising a mom and three adult children with their own children. It’s full of misunderstandings, many of them long-standing, and it was pleasing to see the characters grow in understanding of each other. It sometimes felt a little too perfect New England small-town liberal to me, with everyone having the exact right social attitudes, but, at the same time, there was something comforting about it.

A Candle for St Jude by Rumer Godden. This book about a London dance school was a bit of a roller-coaster for me. The head of the school, Madame Holbein, just seemed so mean and self-centered and outright cruel to one of her most talented dancers. I didn’t really care about seeing her succeed at putting on the big ballet recital in celebration of her 50 years as a dancer. But I did care about Hilda, the young dancer and choreographer who Madame Holbein seems to resent for no reason. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Holbein cannot deny real talent when she sees it and that Hilda could use some pushes to improve.

Dearest Anne by Judith Katzir and translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bila. Another roller-coaster. This book is about the sexual relationship between a 14-year-old girl and her 28-year-old female teacher, Michaela, and it’s written from the perspective of the girl, Rivi, who is both reflecting on the relationship after Michaela’s death and writing a diary about it in the moment. Because Rivi is young in the diary (which she addresses to Anne Frank and signs as Kitty), she doesn’t see the relationship for what it is, and the reader is brought along through her detailed descriptions of their erotic encounters. An alert reader will note plenty of troubling aspects of the relationship along the way, but it’s only toward the end, when Rivi is an adult, that she realizes how irresponsible and selfish Michaela was. For a long time, it’s not clear that there will be any such reflection, and I wasn’t sure what my ultimate reaction to the book would be. I’m still mulling it over — there are a lot of layers to what’s going on.

As for July, I’ll finish The New Jim Crow, which I’m reading with a group at church. I also started the ebook of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, which I’d checked out from the library, but then a hard copy arrived from Old Town Books after I’d just read couple of chapters, so I’ll hold off on reading it until closer to the book club date. My library has officially opened up to curbside service, so I’ll start working through my holds list there pretty soon. And I’ll continue reading from my shelves!

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May Reading in Review

May was an uneven sort of reading month for me. I started out doing a lot of reading, with varying degrees of enjoyment, but by the end of the month, the news had me retreating into old seasons of Project Runway and really distracting movies, if I could bring myself to look away from all the news. I feel like the racial injustice going on in the U.S. right now deserves my attention, but I’m still figuring out at what point the attention ceases being part of the important work of learning and bearing witness and becomes something unhelpful both to the cause and to my own mental health. It’s a balance we all have to figure out, I suppose.

Virginia is easing up on its stay-at-home restrictions, although here in Northern Virginia, we’re a bit behind the rest of the state. I’m not in a huge hurry to move to the next phase. The things I miss the most — church, theatre, movies — are pretty far down the list to reopen, and I expect to be working at home indefinitely, perhaps permanently. I do have a haircut scheduled, and the library is going to start curbside service soon, but if either has to be delayed, it’s not a huge problem. No one really sees my scraggley hair, and I have plenty of books around to read.

So what did I read in May?

Colony by Hugo Wilcken (2005). This novel about Sabir, a man sent to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1928, feels at first like a slow thriller about a prison break. But it eventually turns into a series of dreams of other potential outcomes. I don’t know if my reading tastes have gotten less sophisticated or if I’ve become more discerning, but I’m not as patient with these sorts of loopy stories as I used to be. It wasn’t bad. I just lost interest.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954). This historical novel based on the life of one of du Maurier’s great grandmother starts out strong, but I got bogged down in the legal machinations. I posted a full review for Daphne du Maurier Reading Week.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (2020). This was the first selection in my local bookstore’s subscription service, which also includes a (currently virtual) book club. I loved the setting of post-Civil War Texas, a time and place I’d read little about. And I enjoyed seeing the fiddler, Simon, build a little family around making music together. But the romance that drives the story irritated me, and the resolution came too swiftly and easily.

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy (1957). This was perhaps my favorite book of the month. Set in 1936, it starts with an unhappy wife deciding she wants a divorce from her inattentive husband. Their mothers try to intervene to keep them together, and they even seem hesitant, but events ensue that drive them apart. I loved how Kennedy showed the short- and long-term consequences for the entire family. It’s not exactly a cautionary tale about divorce, but neither does it make getting out seem like the best choice. It’s all so complicated, and this book explores that very well.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016). Entirely accidentally, I read two books in a row that delved into the long-term consequences of a marital break-up. And this book was also very good, although maybe a little more gimmicky in its construction than Kennedy’s more straightforward novel. Not that I minded the gimmicks. It moves around in time, doling out bits and pieces of each character’s story. And there’s a meta-element, too, that makes for some big drama but doesn’t itself become the story.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello (1990). I love Hitchcock’s films, and Psycho is one of my favorites, although it’s not one I’ve watched often. Rebello pulls together the memories of lots of different people involved in the making of the film, which was a low-budget venture for Hitchcock. When people disagree about, for example, whose body is on film during the shower scene and how much is visible, Rebello just lets the discrepancy lie. I liked that about it because it gave it the feel of an oral history.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936). A contender for my book of the month, but it had just a few too many characters for me to keep my mind fully engaged, given all the other distractions. It’s basically the story of a Yorkshire community, as experienced by a variety of residents, from the new teacher, to the long-time landowner, to a poor girl longing for an education, to the minister with a secret. Holtby structures it around the various subjects the county council has to attend to, and many of the major characters are on the council. She ably shows how the fates of different members of a community are intertwined and how changes that are good for one group may be difficult for others. The people are generally likable, even when their positions are not, because few are acting out of malice. At worst, they’re selfish unaware of and unconcerned with others’ fates. Not of good thing, to be sure, but right now, a lack of malice in people’s actions feels refreshing.

As for June, given recent events, I’ve pulled my copy of White Fragility by Robin Diangelo off my shelf to read next, and my church is having a series of discussions on The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander, so I plan to read that. And on a different note altogether, the latest Old Town Books subscription book is All Adults Here by Emma Straub, so I’m going to try to read that in time for the book group. I’m on the library’s waiting list for the Network Effect ebook, but it might be a few weeks for that. I’m enjoying getting through the books on my shelf. Since domestic dramas worked well for me in May, perhaps I’ll go for more of those, but I’m eyeing some mysteries, too. I have lots of options, even without the library!

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The Ibis Trilogy

Back in 2011, I read the first two volumes of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy: Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. The first is set mostly in India in 1838, and the second mostly in Canton just afterward. Both volumes have an enormous cast of characters and draw on a sometimes-bewildering variety of cultural identities: here there are dozens of different races, religions, castes, languages, national identities, economic classes, vocations, and walks of life. What draws them together is opium.

The books are steeped in it. Deeti is a poor opium farmer in India. Raja Neel Rattan is an opium plantation-owner. Zachary Reid is a biracial sailor on the Ibis, whose ability to pass for white means his ability to advance in his chosen calling; the Ibis is transporting workers who can grow opium on the island of Mauritius. Benjamin Burnham is a white British opium-trader. Paulette Lambert is a young French woman who lives with the Burnhams, and whose fate is determined by the Burnhams’ prosperity. Bahram Modi is a Parsi opium trader in Canton, one of the few non-white traders accepted by the British enclave in Fanqui-Town. Ah Fatt is at first an ahkeemfor (an opium addict) and then much more as the story develops. And these are just a few of the characters, who for the most part are developed, engaging, and often quite funny.

One of the most wonderful things about the books, especially the first two, is their exuberant use of language. Ghosh uses words from Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, Bangladeshi, Urdu, and many more languages that come together in a kind of opium-creole. It’s joyful and experimental and sometimes hard to understand; entering into it in the spirit of the thing is like going to these places and eating the foods you’re offered rather than demanding a hamburger.

I re-read the first two books in preparation for finally reading Flood of Fire, which came out in 2015. (I know, I’m years late, it’s not as if I haven’t been reading anything in between.) The first two were as good as I’d remembered. They have a strong sense of the wheel of fate: kings become peasants and peasants become kings, all because of the flood of opium rushing through. There was depth to the characters, and I wanted more. The second book had a bit of a heavy hand, carefully s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g out how the British were the villains, and I think I probably could have been trusted to understand that by myself, without all the lecturing about Free Trade and its Evils, but still, it was a refreshingly excellent read in many ways.

Sadly, Flood of Fire did not live up to the first two. It spends almost the first 250 pages on an affair between two of the characters, which is not only vulgar (and full of embarassing “tee hee” moments, my Lord) but incredibly boring and tiresome. Once we finally extricate ourselves from that morass, and something begins to happen, the book divides itself between the moral decline of one formerly favorite character (acceptable if given motivation, which it isn’t) and a lot of very dull battle scenes (historically accurate I’m sure, but preserve me, this isn’t what I signed up for.) Ghosh’s epilogue makes it clear that he wanted to take the books much farther into the historical record, but got bogged down in detail (perhaps… in 250 pages about a very unoriginal affair?) and now those books won’t be written. What a shame.

If you’re interested in reading these, of course try the final one if you think it might be to your taste, but I might actually recommend just reading the first two. They’re very entertaining and rewarding, and even make good re-reading fodder.

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May Reading

Greetings to all of you at the beginning of June. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well, and I hope you are finding courage to speak up in a way that matters to you for those who are oppressed.

Here’s what I read in May!

 

I’m going to do a separate review of the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, because the first two were a re-read in preparation for finally reading the last one. And Wolf Hall is a re-read, in preparation for finally reading The Mirror and the Light, so I’m not going to talk about that one either, until I finish the trilogy. (I’ll say that it was wonderful as a re-read, though. Just a magnificent book.) And I already wrote about Ulysses, at interminable length.

So what’s left? I like Barbara Pym so much. I’ve already read Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence, so I was prepared for her style: not exactly plot-driven, is she? This book, A Glass of Blessings, is told from the point of view of Wilmet, a married woman who is heavily involved in the doings of her local Anglo-Catholic parish. Wilmet herself is rather vain and judgmental, so part of reading the book is figuring your way around the narration to see what’s really going on with the characters, a bold choice. And there are so many clever layers to it. It’s wonderfully written and extremely funny in places (one of my favorite parts is where a server in the church has had his own cassock specially made for him, and he takes it home in a little suitcase so that no one else can wear it. I laughed like a drain. I’m certain this is a true story.)

When it comes to Diana Wynne Jones, I have that thing where I’m always confident that she’s going to be wonderful, but I always think that it can’t possibly be as wonderful as I think it will be, so every time I open one of her books, I am both very hopeful and ready to be disappointed. But I am never disappointed. Enchanted Glass was so good! It’s about Andrew Hope, who was brought up by his grandfather, who was essentially a wizard, and now Andrew must manage his grandfather’s magical field-of-care, a sort of estate around the house. He must also manage Aidan, a boy who winds up at the house because scary things are happening, and who (by coincidence? I think not) has the same sort of magical powers Andrew has. This book is funny and poignant and exciting and satisfying and deeply original. How did she do it? How did she do it so many times? Incidentally, I have set myself a project of reading all of her novels, not counting picture books or short-story compilations, and after working away at it for over a year and a half, I still have thirteen left! It’s a marvel.

I’ve been sloooooowly working through K.C. Constantine’s mysteries for quite a while now, and with Joey’s Case, I am not quite sure they are still in the mystery genre. Maybe? There’s a murder in this one. Anyway, the main character is the police chief of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, Mario Balzic. It’s a rust belt town, full of working-class Italians and Poles and Black families, Hungarians and a bunch of Catholic priests and a lot of bars. In this book, Mario is seeing a doctor for impotence, and even though he doesn’t subscribe to all that macho sexist bullshit, it’s affecting him in ways he doesn’t understand. What makes a man? What is manhood? Why would he suddenly feel powerless over an uncooperative piece of tissue, and take out that powerlessness on witnesses and victims? Mario is seeing a side of himself — and therefore of humanity — that he hadn’t understood before. (So is this a mystery? It doesn’t matter very much. But it’s a great book and it’s 200 pages long.)

Okay, and then The Library at Mount Char. Have any of you read this one? I really enjoyed reading it — it’s a pacy, well-written, sardonic horror novel — but I find myself a bit at a loss to describe what happens in it. (Jeanne! There is a ton of necromancy in this book and NONE of it pays!) Let’s see: the premise is that there’s a god among us who adopted twelve children back in the 1970s and brought them up to study in his interdimensional “library,” in their different “catalogs” (languages, war, death, animals, the future, etc) so that he would be ready for a great battle to come. One of those children was smart enough to study outside her catalog and become an expert in multiple subjects. Shenanigans ensue. This book is probably not for the squeamish, as there’s a fair bit of violence in it, but it’s a real page-turner, often amusing, and the characters are interesting.

Now that I’ve finished The Semester That Wouldn’t End, I’ll have more time to read. I’m looking forward to some big projects and a lot of fun things. Recommendations always welcome!

 

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